The news which I had been dreading finally happened recently as Winder-based First Piedmont Bank was taken over by the FDIC.
Rumors had been floating around for months about the inevitable demise of the locally owned financial institution. I had hoped perhaps the bank would somehow manage to survive (and not just because I had an account there.)
Hometown banks are becoming less and less frequent these days. At one time, they were as common as the locally owned grocery store or gas station, but you seldom see those any more either.
I actually remember First Piedmont Bank from its infancy. I was working at a now defunct Barrow County publication when the founders of the bank set up shop in our building. They were in the planning phases and it would still be months before the bank actually opened. I remember talking with the founders and listening to their dreams and plans of starting a local bank.
When First Piedmont Bank did finally open its doors, it was a welcome sight for Winder and Barrow County. The founders and operators pushed the “hometown bank” angle and it was smart to do so. There were other options in town, but I’ve always thought you can never have too many local ones.
In fact, years after the bank opened I was looking for a place to open a simple savings account. For some reason I called a chain bank in Winder first, but when I did I could not get through to an actual person. I got plenty of options from a pre-recorded voice, but no matter how many buttons I pushed I could not reach a real person.
Suddenly, it clicked in my brain to call First Piedmont Bank. I dialed the number and after a couple of rings a real person answered and gave me the information I needed about opening a savings account. The next day I went to the East May Street branch and opened my account. It was that simple. (I also vowed to never open an account at the chain bank location that I had attempted to call.)
Unfortunately, the tough economic times took First Piedmont Bank as another victim. There are a variety of reasons why it happened. The fact that the housing boom went from an explosion to a whimper is at the top of the list. Republicans blame Democrats and Democrats also blame Republicans, but, in reality, they are equally at fault. I’m not sure when the current crisis will end but as more local businesses close (banks aren’t the only ones hurting) even more people are put out of work.
For now another bank will keep the Winder location of First Piedmont Bank open. The Monroe branch will close at the end of August. And for now I will leave my account there. Still, knowing the bank is no longer a local one takes a large part of the joy away from doing business there. I wonder what will happen now if I ever find the need to call.
The original concept behind First Piedmont Bank was a solid one. A local bank was opened to give local customers a hometown operation to take part of, invest in and feel a connection to. Now that connection has been cut, another in a long line of economic casualties.
When and where will it all end? I wish I knew. I do know if something is not done soon, things will only continue to get worse and we could be approaching a stage of critical mass. It’s going to take more than finger pointing by politicians to figure this out.
Chris Bridges is editor of the Barrow Journal. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.